DURBAN - IsiZulu children’s author Themba Qwabe wasn’t aware of the huge shortage of children’s books in the language until he was approached by publishers.
“I didn’t realise this, but it made sense because, while growing up, I knew of only one isiZulu book, Masihambisane, which was a prescribed school book,” said Qwabe.
Qwabe, already an established author, was asked by Oxford and Macmillan publishers to write children’s books. Qwabe said writing the books was a “bit of a challenge”, but workshops on how to structure them had helped.
“The shortage of children’s books in isiZulu meant publishers had to get English books translated,” he said.
He explained that it was important for children to be exposed to books in their mother tongue at a young age to preserve the language.
“Your mother tongue carries knowledge of your history and heritage. Because we live in urban areas now and send our children to English-medium crèches, they lose the language quicker. There are certain words that are at risk of being lost for ever over time if there are no books,” he said, adding that the loss of the language also translates into the loss of culture, especially in urban areas. The changing dynamics of families in urban areas also played a role in this loss.
“There are certain things as a man I can’t teach my children in my language. But if we were in a rural setting, my mother would be the one who passes on some of these teachings to my children. Through books these teachings can be told through stories and kept over time.”
He said this loss of language and culture was felt not just among children; there were some adults who didn’t have the knowledge they should have about their mother tongue.
Qwabe, who has a number of isiZulu novels, short stories and poems under his belt, will also be in the line-up at the 21st Time of the Writer International Festival in Durban next week.
When asked how many novels he had written to date, Qwabe replied: “I’ve written short stories, drama novels and poetry in isiZulu. I have a calling to write. I don’t count, but I know there are more than 1 000.
“I like writing in isiZulu, even though I do have some English books I’ve written.”
He said that being a writer was not just about creating stories, but also about telling stories to air community issues.
“It’s always moving and touching to hear people discussing an issue that you have written about. In 2008 I wrote a book called Sithuleleni, which deals with why we are silent about police corruption and involvement in drugs.”
Qwabe said Nakanjani Sibiya was one of his favourite authors because he was among the first isiZulu authors to write about taboo issues in the black community.
“In his book titled Bengithi lizokuna, meaning ‘I thought it would rain’, he explores the idea of transgender in our culture. It looks at how, when parents have one male child, they believe the child will one day marry and have their own family and carry the family name, but this is not always the case,” Qwabe said.
Meanwhile, Qwabe also applauded the efforts of a Durban-born graphic designer who has been designing Nguni calendars available for the public to download for the past six years.
Silondile Jali, originally from the Bluff but now based in Johannesburg as a creative in the marketing and advertising space, hopes her Nguni calendars will encourage children and parents to embrace their mother tongue.
Jali said the idea came to her while she was pregnant and referring to the calendar when counting down trimesters.
“After my daughter was born and after relying heavily on the traditional English calendar, I thought it would be a good idea for my child to be exposed to the months of the year in her mother tongue,” she said.
She explained that when she started making the calendar, #Khalenda, in isiZulu after the birth of her daughter, Zazi, she showed her designs to a friend who was immediately interested and wanted one.
That was six years ago and since then she has made a calendar each year in isiZulu and more recently she has also made calendars in isiXhosa, Sesotho and Sepedi.
Jali explained that last year she was a month late in designing and sharing #Khalenda and released it in February – which became a quirky feature and led to this year’s calendar also starting in February.
“This added another layer of meaning because it’s the month when, generally speaking, love is celebrated, but also the lesser-known International Day for Mother Language is also in February – so it’s like a labour of love for languages,” she said.